Featured image of maladaptive daydreaming.
Last Updated on May 5, 2022 by Peter

Maladaptive Daydreaming 101

It is natural for our mind to wander. That is why it happens to us almost every day that our thoughts “escape” from a certain topic. Then we suddenly realize we are thinking about something completely different and that we have strayed from reality for a moment.

This is not strange and is not a cause for concern. This state of mind is also called daydreaming. As the name suggests, it is a state of consciousness that is not fully connected to reality and the current task, but is more connected to our inner world. 

Over 50% of people daydream daily. During these moments, a person may fantasize about something specific or let thoughts flow spontaneously.

Daydreaming is not something we should prevent. There are many benefits such as enhancing creativity, problem solving, improving focus and stimulating different parts of the brain. But daydreaming can spiral out of control and then it becomes a major problem when maladaptive daydreaming occurs.

What is maladaptive daydreaming?

Once daydreaming gets out of control, you may experience maladaptive daydreaming. If your daydreams are frequent and long, to the extent that they can interfere with your daily life, then we can talk about maladaptive daydreams. People who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming are starting to lose touch with reality because they are creating a fantasy world so realistic that they can even smell, hear sound and experience other similar stimuli.

An image of a man drinking coffee and daydreaming.

Different people have completely different daydreams, for some they are structured, full of dialogue and realistic situations, while for others daydreams are more fantasies where people and events are often idealized. It is logical that daydreams are different from person to person, because the consciousness of each individual is completely different and it is affected by everything from the first to the last moment of life.

Maladaptive daydreaming is recognized as a disorder relatively recently compared to most other sleep disorders. 20 years ago, this term was first mentioned, even though it has been known for much longer. That is why it has not yet been recognized as a mental disorder, although many scientists believe it is a mental disorder. It remains to be seen how exactly it will be classified.

What is the cause of maladaptive daydreaming?

There are various causes of excessive daydreaming, but none specific, especially because this disorder has not yet been officially recognized, as we mentioned in the previous paragraph. Psychiatrists, sleep experts and other scientists believe that loneliness and overcoming some personal tragedy are often the trigger for maladaptive daydreaming.

Although 99% of people know that this is not a reality, they develop a state similar to addiction. The British Psychological Society does not agree that it is an addiction, but rather a neural biochemical imbalance. However, there is something called behavioral addiction. Maladaptive daydreaming has been observed in death row prisoners in the USA, who spend 23 hours a day in a cell and know that they will never leave a prison. There is an ongoing debate as to whether daydreaming is necessary for inmates in this case and whether it should be encouraged.

Although there are no studies, there has been a huge increase in the number of people who develop maladaptive daydreaming during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were locked in their homes with an uncertain future.

Does maladaptive daydreaming have any relation to ADHD?

A clear correlation was observed between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and maladaptive daydreaming. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a rather common mental disorder that is diagnosed in childhood and lasts a lifetime. Symptoms can be very mild but also severe. People with severe ADHD cannot maintain focus and they are very impulsive. Patients with ADHD often have sleep problems, almost 80% of them, and maladaptive daydreaming is another concomitant disorder, however not as common as sleep disorders.

An image of a young man trying to understand the pattern of dreams.

What are the common symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming?

Once again there is no formal criterion that determines the symptoms of maladaptive daydreaming, but most people notice at least one of the following symptoms. It would be even more accurate to say that majority of them have 2 or more symptoms.

Vivid daydreams

Remember some of your recent daydreams. Although that daydream seemed realistic to you at the time, now that you remember it, you will realize that it only had vague outlines, but no details. This is natural for all people who are not maladaptive daydreamers. But when we talk about maladaptive daydreamers, the situation is completely different. Their daydreams are so developed that it would be hard to tell what reality is and what is fantasy if someone could put us in maladaptive daydream, like in the movie “Inception”. All people who participate in someone’s maladaptive daydream have developed characteristics, locations seem realistic, as well as the plot.

floating in lucid dreams

Daydreams from the real-life situations

Maladaptive daydreamers may experience real-life situations in their daydreams. Such daydreams can show all the complexity of the outer world and thus make it even harder for a person to return to reality. Numerous things may provoke daydreams from real-life, smells and music are one of the most common stimuli.

an image of a man in his dreams

Issues with everyday tasks

When the brain is constantly trying to go beyond reality, it is not possible to complete even the basic everyday tasks. Not to mention more complex tasks that require complete focus for a few hours, for example. Excessive daydreaming will sooner or later take its toll on you. So if you notice that you are struggling with simple everyday tasks or that you are trying to finish them as soon as possible so that you can have a daydream, seek professional medical help. Otherwise you run the risk of getting fired, getting divorced and experiencing similar huge life problems.

ideas in lucid dreaming

Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and there are many causes. Treatment depends on underlying medical problems, and what is recommended to everyone is to pay attention to sleep hygiene. Maladaptive daydreaming can be culprit for insomnia as well. Since the brain is in a state we can call limbo during daydreaming, then that disrupts your circadian rhythm. The brain is not sure if you are asleep or awake. Also, the sense of time and space is lost, so the body and brain are not sure when they should start secreting melatonin, the sleep hormone. All this leads to insomnia. After a few nights with poor night’s sleep, sleep debt will begin to accumulate. You can then fall into a vicious circle where conditions such as microsleep, sleep drunkenness and hypersomnia occur.

insomnia produced by stress and lack of sleep

Excessive desire for daydreaming

Once you become a maladaptive daydreamer, your only need and desire will be to start a new daydream. Everything else will seem pointless to you. If your condition is not severe, you will be able to complete basic tasks through the days, but you will be mentally absent. People around you will notice that quickly. So if someone suggests to you that you are mentally not present, do not take that words as an insult, but think about your condition and the steps you need to take.

An image of a man trying to understand his dreams.

Talking & making facial expressions during the daydreaming

Excessive daydreaming is a condition that can resemble a trance. During these episodes, the person speaks, makes facial expressions or some other movements. All this is in accordance with the plot that takes place in the mind. Such severe symptoms are one of the main reasons why many consider this condition to be a mental disorder.

an image of a man that sleeps and dreams

How to differentiate daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming?

The difference between daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming is quite obvious. Although there is no method, except maybe The Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS), by which a doctor can determine with certainty that you are suffering from excessive daydreaming nor can he officialy diagnose maladaptive daydreaming, you can distinguish these two by yourself.

As we said at the beginning, daydreaming is completely normal and mostly involves pleasant thoughts. Maladaptive daydreaming can also consist of pleasant thoughts, so this is not the main difference. The main difference is whether daydreaming has any impact on your life. Also, vividness of daydreams varies, and although maladaptive daydreaming can include enjoyable events, it mostly involves violence, power, and similar emotions.

How to treat maladaptive daydreaming?

Don’t despair, there are ways to treat maladaptive daydreaming disorder. How long it will take until you notice progress depends on the person, but if you persevere, you should be able to fight off this problem. It is important that maladaptive daydreaming is not a fatal condition, although it may have comorbidity with recognized mental disorders. 

We will not talk about medications separately because no medication is officially intended for maladaptive daydreaming, but consult your doctor about fluvoxamine, medication for obsessive compulsive disorder, as there are indications that it significantly helps control episodes and frequency.

An image of a woman with daydreaming desire.

Improve sleep quality

Improving sleep quality is of paramount importance not only as a way to treat this condition, but also for overall health. Do everything you can to improve your sleep hygiene. Be physically active. Walk as much as you can, go to gym, do push-ups and include yoga in your routine. Also pay attention to your diet. Get enough macronutrients and micronutrients. It is also important what you eat before going to bed.

Avoid caffeine after 3 PM, and limit alcohol, nicotine and other unhealthy things or better yet do not consume at all. It is not only the duration of sleep that is important, but above all is the sleep quality, because you can wake up tired even after 8 hours. When it comes to maladaptive daydreaming, sleep quality is very important for mental health, so it will help you deal with problems more easily, instead of fleeing to the fantasy world.

Less activity during the day

If you work too hard, daydreaming can be a way for your mind to try to rest. Burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion. It is a state that has recently been recognized by the World Health Organization. In order not to push yourself to daydreaming, you need to reduce daytime fatigue. You should better distribute your energy so that you do not feel completely exhausted in certain parts of the day. If this still happens, then the solution is afternoon nap or coffee nap if you do not have enough time.

An image of a woman in a sleeping bag.

Become aware of the maladaptive daydreaming

Acceptance is the first step towards solving most problems, including this one. As long as you are unaware of your problem or refuse to accept that you have a problem even though everyone suggests it is the case, you will not be able to find the solution. It’s hard to be 100% realistic about yourself, but do your best. Think about whether your productivity has dropped at work and whether you have recently argued with friends and family about your behavior. If the answer is yes, then you need to seek help. You certainly enjoy your vivid daydreams, but that is not the way you can continue to live your life.

Consider a therapy

It might be challenging to find a place where you can treat this condition, but some sleep clinics may accept the challenge. First of all, you should go to your health care provider and consult, before taking the next steps. Maybe the doctor will think that introspection is enough to overcome the problem or he will send you to a psychologist.

an image of a stressed women having a professional sleep therapy session
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